Beningbrough's long lost love story

Black and white heads and shoulder of a service woman and man

WAAF Dorothy Preston (Gipsy) and Canadian airman Harry Olsen (Olie) met in late 1941 at the Alice Hawthorn pub in Nun Monkton. Their love story was all but lost until Dorothy visited Beningbrough decades later and unaware that a tribute existed, she emotionally shared her identity and their love story.

" It was love at first sight. Everyone who was there that night knew it!"
- Dorothy Preston (Gipsy)

The Alice Hawthorn pub, just over the river from Beningbrough was a popular destination during their time off for those billeted on the estate. Some took the road and cycled to reach it, others taking the ferry route over the river. 

After the initial meeting, their time together was short. In March 1942 Olie was transferred from 35 squadron based at nearby Linton-on-Ouse to 405 squadron based at RAF Pocklington. Without transport, they had little way of seeing each other but they stayed in touch and continued to exchange letters.

Olie’s plane was shot down on 8 June 1942 during a bombing raid against targets near Essen, Germany. He managed to bail out safely over the village of Heteren in the Netherlands and was taken prisoner.

After the war, Olie was flown back to the UK on 10 May 1945, Dorothy recalls:

“We didn’t meet because he was in such a state that he couldn’t remember my home address. He wrote to me through the RAF record office, but they were so lax that by the time I got the letter and was given immediate leave to go and see him, his time was up and he had long since left for Canada. I wrote to his home address, but there was no way I could afford to go there”. 

They never met again.

Secretly Olie had marked the moment
Graffiti carved in wood saying 1942 Gipsy - Olie
Secretly Olie had marked the moment

Their love left a permanent mark on Beningbrough, with Olie’s graffiti on the drawing room fireplace. There was originally a heart between the names, sadly now faded through human touch over the decades, and the reason it is now protected to prevent further loss of the inscription. 

The story behind the graffiti was a mystery until a visit from a lady in 1987. When shown the graffiti by a room guide, she was overwhelmed to see it, and revealed that she was 'Gipsy' and shared their story and this moment in time. 

Both married other people soon after the war and had families. Olie passed away in 1967 and Dorothy in 1990, a few years after her visit to Beningbrough.

A quilt that tells a story

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Airforce at Beningbrough (1943–1945), volunteer Susan Hill created a sampler quilt.

Two Canadian squadrons were billeted at Beningbrough during this part of the war, flying out on missions from the airfield at Linton-on-Ouse, and the quilt tells their story.

Handcrafted with care and consideration
A quilt made of squares hanging on a wall
Handcrafted with care and consideration

Each square is themed, one is called Pierced Star as the pilots would fly out at night, often navigating by the stars. Another is Flying Geese for 408 Flying Goose Squadron, and this sits alongside Card Trick - gambling helped the airmen pass time between their dangerous missions where nearly half didn’t return.

The love story is represented by True Lovers' Knot. Looking back, it’s remarkable that Lady Chesterfield never had the grafitti removed after the war; perhaps she left it as her memorial to her temporary residents during this time.

Remaking history

During the war, women made quilts to be distributed by the Canadian Red Cross to families, refugees, nurses and the services. Inspired by this, Susan made the quilt over a year and a half, whilst on duty as a room guide at Beningbrough, sitting on a window seat to maximise the light. Some of the squares use patterns which were popular with the Canadian women at the time and it became a talking point for visitors to the hall, several with their own memories from this time.

Explore more of Beningbrough's wartime stories